Highlights from this year's Iowa Senate votes on Branstad nominees

During the 2014 legislative session, the Iowa Senate confirmed all but a handful of Governor Terry Branstad’s more than 200 nominees for state boards and commissions. It’s not unusual for senators to vote down one or two appointees, but this year the Senate confirmed everyone who came up for a vote on the floor.

The only close call was former Iowa House Republican Nick Wagner, confirmed to the Iowa Utilities Board last month with just one vote to spare. Branstad originally named Wagner to the three-member utilities board in 2013 but pulled his nomination when it became clear that senators would not confirm him. Branstad named Wagner to that board anyway, right after the Senate adjourned for the year in 2013. By the time his nomination came up for consideration this year, a couple of factors that worked against him were no longer relevant. Former State Senator Swati Dandekar had resigned from the board to run for Congress, so there would no longer be two of three members from Marion (a Cedar Rapids suburb). Furthermore, Branstad named attorney Sheila Tipton to replace Dandekar, so senators could no longer object to the lack of a lawyer on the Iowa Utilities Board.

Still, most of the Democratic caucus opposed Wagner’s nomination. State Senator Rob Hogg cited the nominee’s support for a bad nuclear power bill that the legislature considered a few years back. Meanwhile, State Senator Matt McCoy (who incidentally wanted to pass the nuclear bill) noted that as a key Iowa House Republican on budget matters, Wagner “was not willing to listen” and “took very difficult and very hard-line positions.” After the jump I’ve posted the roll call on the Wagner nomination; 11 Democrats joined all 24 Republicans to confirm him.

As in recent years, the governor withdrew a handful of nominees who were not likely to gain at least 34 votes (a two-thirds majority) in the upper chamber. A few nominees for low-profile boards had to go because of party imbalance issues. Chet Hollingshead, one of seven Branstad appointees to the Mental Health and Disability Services Commission, never came up for a vote, presumably because of a theft incident Bleeding Heartland user Iowa_native described here.

I am not sure why Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal informed Branstad that Jason Carlstrom was unlikely to be confirmed as chair of the Iowa Board of Parole. The governor first appointed Carlstrom to that position in the summer of 2012, to fill out the remainder of someone else’s term. The Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed him during the 2013 legislative session. When Branstad reappointed Carlstrom to the parole board this year, I didn’t expect him to run into any trouble. I will update this post if I learn more details.

The highest-profile nominee withdrawn by Branstad was former Iowa House Republican Jamie Van Fossen, whom the governor wanted to chair the Public Employment Relations Board. Cityview’s Civic Skinny described the backstory well; I’ve posted excerpts after the jump. Van Fossen still serves on that board, having been confirmed to a full term in 2012. But the new chair will be Mike Cormack, a Republican who served four terms in the Iowa House and later worked for the State Department of Education. Senators unanimously confirmed Cormack last month. The outgoing Public Employment Relations Board chair, Jim Riordan, has alleged that the board faced political pressure from Branstad staffers to hire an employer-friendly administrative law judge.

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Terry Branstad's philosophy of second chances

Governor Terry Branstad’s office released a long list of nominees to state boards and commissions yesterday. I’ve posted the full list after the jump. As he’s done during the past three years, the governor tapped several former state legislators or onetime Republican candidates for the Iowa House or Senate. The latest batch of appointees includes former GOP State Representative Lance Horbach for the State Judicial Nominating Commission, former GOP State Representative Jamie Van Fossen for the Public Employment Relations Board, and former GOP State Senator John Putney for the State Transportation Commission.

Branstad also re-appointed former GOP State Senator Jeff Lamberti to the Racing and Gaming Commission. I’m not surprised; the governor has expressed his confidence in him many times, even immediately after Lamberti’s drunk driving arrest in May 2012. A few weeks later, Lamberti pled guilty to driving while intoxicated, after which his colleagues elected him chairman of the Racing and Gaming Commission.

Several Iowa lawmakers in both parties have been caught driving after drinking too much alcohol. Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds was arrested for drunk driving twice while serving as a county treasurer. Arguably, Lamberti’s lapse in judgment is no impediment to leading one of the most powerful state commissions, which will soon make a high-profile decision on granting licenses to two new casino projects.

At the same time, it’s striking that Branstad, so committed to a continuing role in public life for Lamberti, so committed to seeing Reynolds succeed him as governor, is also determined to prevent tens of thousands of Iowans from ever participating in politics at the most basic level for a U.S. citizen. Since he signed an executive order making Iowa one of the most restrictive states for felon voting, only about 40 people have managed to regain their voting rights out of an estimated “25,000 offenders who finished their sentences for felonies or aggravated misdemeanors” since January 2011. Branstad’s policy affects mostly non-violent criminals. Non-white Iowans are more likely to be permanently disenfranchised, since Iowa is the worst state for racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

Branstad recently defended his policy on these terms: “At least somebody that commits an infamous crime such as a felony ought to pay the court costs and the fine associated with that crime before they expect to get their rights restored.” The governor knows perfectly well that most ex-felons are lucky to find a job that covers essentials like food and housing. Repaying thousands of dollars in court costs is not realistic for most of these people. Moreover, “infamous” crimes can include stealing a vending machine as a teenager. Denying thousands of Iowans a real chance to exercise their right to vote is a scandal, especially for a governor so forgiving of serious mistakes made by certain well-connected Republicans.

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Senate district 41 will be a race to watch in 2010

With Democrats defending 19 of the 25 Iowa Senate districts on the ballot next fall, we don’t have many opportunities to make gains in the upper chamber. However, I’ve long felt that Democrats should make a serious play for Senate district 41 in Scott County. Dave Hartsuch is far too conservative for a district that was long represented by Maggie Tinsman, whom Hartsuch defeated in the 2006 GOP primary. Historically, the Bettendorf area has been strongly Republican, but Democrats have made gains in recent years. Senate district 41 now has as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

As I’d hoped, a Democratic candidate has stepped up to the plate, and Hartsuch will also have to fend off a primary challenge in the spring. More on this race after the jump.

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Help Iowa Democrats respond to the American Future Fund

The Des Moines-based American Future Fund is exploiting loopholes in rules governing political advocacy groups in order to run campaign advertising in targeted races without disclosing its donors.

The Des Moines Register provided the latest evidence in this article from Saturday’s edition: “National group airs ads on Iowa House.”

For background on the American Future Fund, a 510(c)4 organization “formed to provide Americans with a conservative and free market viewpoint,” you can read this piece by Iowa Independent’s Jason Hancock, this TPM Cafe story by Mrs. Panstreppon, or Paul Kiel’s report for TPM Muckraker.

The American Future Fund is associated with heavy-hitters in the field of campaign advertising. Its media consultant is Larry McCarthy (creator of the 1988 Willie Horton ad), and its legal consultant is Ben Ginsberg (who was involved with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004).

Representatives for the American Future Fund deny that the group seeks to influence elections. For that reason, they are not subject to campaign disclosure rules governing political action committees and other groups that make independent expenditures during election campaigns.

However, the American Future Fund’s radio and television commercials this year have focused on candidates running in competitive Senate races, such as Republican incumbent Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Democratic candidate Mark Udall of Colorado, and Democratic candidate Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. You can view many of those ads at the AFF’s You Tube channel. Note that while these commercials ostensibly are focused on generating phone calls in support of a particular issue position, they haven’t been aired in states without a contested Senate seat.

Now the AFF is weighing in on key Iowa legislative races. From yesterday’s story in the Des Moines Register:

On Wednesday [October 29], AFF launched television ads in Iowa that criticize Democratic Reps. McKinley Bailey of Webster City, Paul Shomshor of Council Bluffs, Elesha Gayman of Davenport and Art Staed of Cedar Rapids. All four are incumbents struggling to hold onto their seats in the face of strong Republican challengers.

Other ads that compliment Republican Reps. Doug Struyk of Council Bluffs, Jamie Van Fossen of Davenport and Dan Rasmussen of Independence. Struyk is a Republican leader whose opponent has spent little; the other two are dealing with strong Democratic challengers.

AFF’s spokesman explained the timing of the political messages by saying it took months to compile analysis on the legislative session, which ended in April.

What an amazing coincidence. Analysis about legislative action completed more than six months ago resulted in television ads that appeared six days before a general election.

In another amazing coincidence, the AFF’s ads happen to focus on candidates running in six battleground districts being targeted by both parties. Dozens of legislators who voted the same way on those issues, but represent uncompetitive districts, are not subject to AFF’s advertising blitz.

I could only find two of the American Future Fund Iowa’s tv ads on You Tube. One praised the Republican incumbent in Iowa House district 81, Jamie Van Fossen, and the other criticized the Democratic incumbent in House district 9, McKinley Bailey.

It’s worth noting that while urging viewers to call legislators, these ads give the phone number for the switchboard at the State Capitol. However, the switchboard is currently closed, because the legislature is not in session. The AFF spokesman explained that the law requires advertisements to use official phone numbers, but he is evading the issue.

These commercials cannot be intended to generate citizen communication with legislators if they are giving a phone number that no one is currently answering.

Clearly the AFF selected the subjects and timing of their advertising in order to influence the outcome of legislative elections in Iowa. (The Republican Party of Iowa is concentrating its resources on making gains in the Iowa House, where Democrats have only a 53-47 majority.)

The tv ads direct viewers to the web site of the AFF’s Iowa chapter: www.iowa.americanfuturefund.com.

AFF spokesman Tim Albrecht

told The Des Moines Register last month that AFF is a group that focuses solely on national issues. “At that time we were, but after a lot of analysis and reviewing what had occurred in the last legislative session, we decided to open an Iowa chapter,” he said.

It is AFF’s first state-based chapter in the country, said Albrecht, who is a former spokesman for Iowa Republican legislative leader Christopher Rants and AFF’s only paid staff member.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Future Fund was incorporated by the same people behind the American Future Fund, and the Iowa Future Fund ran television ads criticizing Democratic Governor Chet Culver. (Here is one of the Iowa Future Fund’s ads against Culver.) In March, the Iowa Democratic Party called for an investigation into the Iowa Future Fund’s advertising campaign and failure to disclose donors. In April, a press release announced the creation of the Iowa Progress Project to replace the Iowa Future Fund. In theory, the the Iowa Progress Project was going to focus on state issues, while the American Future Fund focused on national issues.

It is unclear why the American Future Fund decided to create an Iowa chapter, rather than have the Iowa Progress Project pay for television commercials about Iowa House incumbents. If anyone has any information regarding the Iowa Progress Project or the decision to create an AFF Iowa chapter, please post a comment or send me a confidential e-mail (desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com).

Can anything be done to force the AFF to disclose who is paying for these commercials? Charlie Smithson, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, told the Des Moines Register that his office had received a complaint about the ads, but that campaign disclosure laws do not apply because the AFF ads do not urge viewers to vote for a candidate.

Mr. desmoinesdem has extensively researched election law and tells me that one relevant case in this area is Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life. Wisconsin Right to Life was running ads urging people to contact their senators about judicial filibusters. Senator Russ Feingold was up for re-election, and the ads did not urge people to vote against him, but the FEC considered them “sham issue ads” that were intended to influence an election and therefore were subject to regulation by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold).

The Supreme Court had previously upheld McCain-Feingold’s provisions on political advocacy ads (in the McConnell vs. FEC case), so the key question was whether Wisconsin Right to Life’s ads were the kind of political advocacy Congress can regulate. With Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority, the court

held that McConnell v. FEC did not establish the test that any ad intended to influence an election and having that effect is express advocacy. Such a test would be open-ended and burdensome, would lead to bizarre results, and would “unquestionably chill a substantial amount of political speech.” Instead, the Court adopted the test that “an ad is the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.” The Court further held that the compelling state interests invoked by the government to regulate advocacy did not apply with equal force to genuine issue ads. Neither the interest in preventing corruption nor the goal of limiting the distorting effects of corporate wealth was sufficient to override the right of a corporation to speak through ads on public issues. This conclusion, the Court held, was necessary in order to “give the benefit of the doubt to speech, not censorship.” The dissent by Justice Souter called WRTL’s ads indistinguishable from political advocacy ads and accused the majority of implicitly overruling McConnell v. FEC.

I agree with Souter’s position that so-called issue ads targeting candidates in key races shortly before elections are really political advocacy ads subject to McCain-Feingold. If the American Future Fund were mainly trying to influence Iowans’ views on issues, they wouldn’t be running their commercials only in battleground districts. Also, the timing of the ads only makes sense in the context of this Tuesday’s election. As I mentioned above, no one is currently answering the phone number AFF asks viewers to call.

But Smithson has to look at the AFF’s Iowa advertising from a narrow legal perspective. Clearly the ads are promoting favorable opinions about some Republican incumbents and unfavorable opinions about some Democratic incumbents. But as long as the ads urge people to call a telephone number (even a non-working one), courts would probably not hold that the commercials have “no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.”

I am not an expert on election law or disclosure requirements for 501(c)4 organizations. Perhaps there is some way Congress could require more financial disclosure of 501(c)4s so that they would not be able to run campaign ads with no accountability.

I don’t know the solution, but I do know that we can help Democrats fight back against the American Future Fund’s ad campaign by giving to the Iowa House Democrats’ Truman fund or to the following individual candidates:

McKinley Bailey (incumbent in House district 9)

Art Staed (incumbent in House district 37)

Elesha Gayman (incumbent in House district 84)

Paul Shomshor (incumbent in House district 100)

Phyllis Thede (challenger in House district 81)

Gene Ficken (challenger in House district 23)

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